Do the Tonys have an impact on Utah?

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, May 7 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

Martin Vidnovic (as Max von Mayerling), Benjamin Eakeley (as Joe Gillis) and Lynne Wintersteller (as Norma Desmond) in “Sunset Boulevard” at Pioneer Theatre Company.

Pioneer Theatre Company

Enlarge photo»

NEW YORK CITY — What effect do the Tonys have on the plays selected for production in Utah theaters?

The theater equivalent to an Oscar can dramatically increase a show’s ticket sales, and some producers will keep a money-losing show onstage in the hope that Tony love will turn its fortunes around.

Also, for theater observers, the Tonys are a parlor game to remark on the snubbed shows and performers. Case in point: After his 2009 “Hair” nomination, Utah native Will Swenson was overlooked for his performance this year. (But he’s in good company: James Earl Jones, Robin Williams and Chris Rock got the cold shoulder from Tony this year; and for Daniel Radcliffe, this is his second Broadway snub.)

With Tuesday’s nominations, it’s a good time to check in with Utah’s largest theater companies — Hale Orem, Hale West Valley, Pioneer Theatre and Utah Shakespeare Company, alphabetically — and review if a Tony honor will add a production to the short list of plays to be considered for local production. The question posed to area creative directors generated some interesting responses, along with notable tidbits of the companies’ plans for upcoming seasons. So with the Tonys in mind, here’s a look at four Utah theater-production companies.

For the Pioneer Theatre Company, a Tony “tremendously adds to the name recognition a new title receives,” explained Kirsten Park, PTC’s director of marketing. “While our current Tony-award-winning musical ‘Sunset Boulevard’ needs no introduction to most people, next year’s selection, ‘Next to Normal,’ would probably be unknown to the average Utahn and be more of a challenge to market.”

Enthusiasm is high for the regional premiere of “Next to Normal,” which in addition to the Pulitzer Prize also earned 11 nominations and three Tonys.

“I saw ‘Next to Normal’ in New York just before the Tonys were awarded and was just blown away by the strength of the production,” artistic director Charles Morey said. “I knew that when the show became available, it was a musical that I really wanted to see presented at Pioneer Theatre.

“It’s nice to have the Tony imprimatur on a show,” Morey added. “Although with the exception of the shows that go stratospheric with all the publicity of a huge megahit and multiple critical awards, a Tony is not really in the common vocabulary anymore like it was when everyone in the country read Time or Newsweek and was aware of the currently running Broadway shows.”

PTC helped “Sunset Boulevard” cast member Martin Vidnovic celebrate his daughter Laura Benanti’s Tony nomination this year. (Critical darling Benanti earned a Tony award for her performance in the 2008 “Gypsy” revival.)

Next season’s “Man of La Mancha” won five statues and is a clear favorite of Utah audiences.

“The Tonys are a good indicator of what’s hot at the moment,” said Utah Shakespeare Festival artistic director Brian Vaughn. “We do watch the trends in New York, and especially the revivals that are produced.

“We are dedicated to the entire Shakespeare canon, but we also read a slew of plays throughout the year, and we’re also actively creating our own adaptations of literary works,” he explained.

USF’s current summer season includes “The Music Man,” winner of six 1958 Tonys, and the 2012 eight-play season promises a Tony-winning musical, “a knockdown comedy, a prominent literary adaptation and one surprise production,” he said.

Vaughn called out one nominee, “War Horse,” as a contender for a future season at the Cedar City theater. “It is a major theatrical event with a beautiful, very moving story.”

While each of the producers interviewed had plans to see “The Book of Mormon Musical,” only Vaughn could offer firsthand knowledge of the show that received 14 nods, more than any other show this season.

While acknowledging that the show is “offensive, in your face and challenging — just as you’d expect from the ‘South Park’ guys — it has a magnificent score and is an homage to classical musical theater,” he said.

“A Tony award is one indication that there is a higher level of recognition for a play,” said Sally Dietlein, executive producer of the Hale Centre Theatre. “But it’s only one factor in how we select our productions.”

The following season includes the fresh-from-Broadway “9 to 5: The Musical,” which earned four Tony nominations, and “The Sound of Music,” awarded five Tonys in 1960 and, including its 1998 revival, 10 nominations.

The West Valley theater will present the U.S. premiere of “Zorro: The Musical” and the regional premiere of “The Game’s Afoot” by Ken Ludwig. “Crazy for You” and “Lend Me a Tenor” are two of Ludwig’s previous Tony-honored shows produced at the Hale.

“After producing a number of Ken’s shows, he and I have become email pen pals,” Dietlein said. “He’s been showing us material that he knows we’d like.”

“The Game’s Afoot” will be the play’s second production, and Dietlein added that the script hasn’t been finalized. “The play is so new that we’re still working with a version that has Ken’s notes and edits on it.”

“We travel to New York at least once a year to see shows and select what we believe will be appealing to our audience,” said Cody Swenson, co-owner of Hale Center Theater. “When a play receives either a Tony nomination or an award, it can help us market it.”

But he added, “We often get the inside scoop from Will,” referring to his Tony-nominated brother who appeared with four-time Tony-winner Audra McDonald in a benefit production of “110 in the Shade” at the Orem theater.

“I haven’t spoken with Will lately, but I know he’s thrilled to death for the nominees of ‘Priscilla,’ the show he’s in currently.”

While there’s been no formal announcement of the following season, Swenson revealed that Hale will stage the regional premiere of “Xanadu,” which earned four Tony nods in 2008.

“Will happened to have a night off, so we saw ‘Xanadu’ with him, and we had the best time,” Swenson said. “We just laughed and laughed. It’s a hilarious musical that doesn’t take itself so seriously that it can't poke fun at itself.”

The second production of the season will be “The 39 Steps.” “It’s such a fun and creative show that will play beautifully in our space,” Swenson said.

Adapted from the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, “The 39 Steps” earned two 2008 Tonys and six nominations. “This has been a dream project of one of our directors, Chris Clark, since he saw the London production” in 2007, the director said. “It is a great comic piece that will help shake off the winter blues.”

Blair Howell is a writer and editor.

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